Sun, Mar 20, 2005 - Page 17 News List

Lighting up in the dark

Taiwan is locked in a public battle against smoking while many Taiwanese battle personally to quit. Despite successes on both fronts, the war against tobacco is being lost

By David Momphard  /  STAFF REPORTER

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

By the end of the year, Lu Chien-guo (呂建國) will likely be dead. At least that's what his doctors have told him. It's a fate he's resigned himself to because, in his own words, it's what he deserves. In the four decades he's spent smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, the ashen-faced 58-year-old has wizened more than he has grown wise. He long ago felt the effects of cigarettes, but obstinance and the ease of smoking in Taiwan prevented him from ever quitting.

In a nation where over 47 percent of adult males smoke, there has not traditionally been any guilt associated with the pleasure. Nor has there been widespread awareness of the health risks inherent in tobacco smoke. That may be changing through ongoing campaigns to increase public awareness, but those campaigns may not be reaching the most vulnerable age group and gender. As a result, the growing awareness of smoking's ills is still being outpaced by the damage caused by tobacco.

Some 13,500 Taiwanese will succumb to a smoking-related illness in the remaining nine months of the year, according to the Department of Health, which makes nearly 18,000 each year, or two every hour. That is an increase of nearly 3,000 people in the past five years. The department's Cancer Registry shows that a new case of cancer occurs every nine minutes in Taiwan, a figure that has also risen in recent years.

In spite of its known risks, smoking is growing in popularity among Taiwanese, especially young women, a group that until recently has accounted for only a small percentage of tobacco users. The National Health Bureau estimates some 200,000 of the nation's young people will begin smoking this year, two thirds of them female. That's in contrast to the current 5 percent of adult women who claim to be smokers.

"In Taiwan, there has never been talk about smoking being bad for you," said Lu, who favored Taiwan's own Long Life brand cigarettes before being diagnosed last year to be in the advanced stages of cancer. "We Chinese considered smoking to be beneficial. It makes you stronger. I had been smoking for nearly 40 years before Jackie Chan said it was bad," he said, referring to a popular anti-smoking campaign featuring the film star.

CLEARING THE AIR

Recent years have seen a profusion of public awareness campaigns, many of them sponsored by the non-profit John Tung Foundation (董氏基金會), Taiwan's premier anti-smoking lobby: Jackie Chan breaking a giant cigarette over his knee in life-size cardboard stand-ups, commercials that run both on television and before film screenings, and numerous print and radio public service announcements that decry the dangers of cigarette smoke.

The most popular campaign by far has been the foundation's biannual "quit and win" contest that has challenged tens of thousands of smokers to register to quit for a month for a chance at over NT$1 million in cash. It is the only quit-smoking contest recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO).

But the campaigns are almost exclusively geared towards men. In addition to the Jackie Chan ads, a public service announcement that runs prior to film screenings depicts a man who struggles to kick the habit so he can enjoy life with his new child. The largest campaign aimed at young Taiwanese is the near-annual drive to get rid of cigarette smoking in the nation's military, in which young males are obliged to serve. None of the campaigns are targeted at females in their late teens and early 20s, the fastest-growing demographic of smokers.

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